Early last month, in a strange twist of events in my state of Oklahoma, politicians instead of educators decided the fate of the Common Core State Standards. Educators and policymakers around the country waited with bated breath to see if Gov. Mary Fallin would sign House Bill 3399, immediately removing the common core from classrooms across the state. And sign she did. But it did not go down quietly: On June 25, parents, teachers, and members of the Oklahoma state school board filed a legal challenge in the state supreme court, arguing against the constitutionality of the standards’ repeal. This legal petition also put the governor’s decision to revert to the state’s 2003 standards—Priority Academic Student Skills, or PASS—on hold.
As far as I can tell, Oklahoma educators could possibly have no standards by which to teach when we return to school next month.
As an elementary school teacher, my concern is about getting the best standards in front of my students. And for this reason, I am dismayed by the loss of the common-core writing standards. Writing instruction has long been neglected in state-written academic standards, and the common core moves writing back to its rightful place in a thinking-based curriculum that is stair-stepped from kindergarten through the 12th grade. The writing standards require the development of listening and speaking skills, in addition to close reading of informational texts with annotation and concise, written summaries.
Many of my colleagues are shaking their heads in disbelief at the complete waste of time and resources that has resulted from this turn in state politics."
In the building I am privileged to work in, we have worked endlessly as a staff on implementation of the common standards. We have deconstructed each of the standards to create common formative assessments. We have had book studies and writing workshops in an effort to gain a better grasp of the writing standards. While we do not stand to lose everything with this latest legislative development, my wish is that educators will think about what is best for students wherever we end up, instead of what is easiest for themselves.
The thought of moving backward to PASS (or worse) fills me and thousands of other Oklahoma teachers and administrators with mind-numbing angst. The state has invested countless hours and a great deal of professional-development money so that educators, curriculum specialists, and districts would be in a strong position to put the standards in place. To this end, my own district implemented new standards-aligned academic vocabulary, which mandates a grade-level list of words for K-5 students. We purchased many standards-aligned professional materials for teachers to help them in the implementation of instructional units. While those materials and new word lists can be tweaked to reflect whatever might replace the common core, many of my colleagues are shaking their heads in disbelief at the complete waste of time and resources that has resulted from this turn in state politics.
Common-core opponents have believed many myths about the standards, from their being a malevolent federal takeover of education, accompanied by a federally mandated curriculum, to their being the creation of a conspiracy by rich noneducators, resulting in dumbed-down ideas that will kill young minds across America.
One of the big sticking points in the standards discussion has been the “exemplar text” list. While I completely agree that a couple of the titles on the high school portion are completely inappropriate and too sexually graphic for the classroom, I would trust that all educators would use their common sense and realize that these are merely suggested titles, not mandated book lists.
Yet, once a state representative read a graphic selection from one of the exemplar texts aloud, it was pretty clear that he had closed the deal. He spelled the words too graphic for the floor of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and his point was made: If a text is too graphic to read aloud on the floor of the House, how then could it be appropriate for teens to read in public school classrooms across the state?
I work hard not to censor books for students. And although I agree with the lawmaker’s premise, I’m confident I could make the appropriate choice for my classroom and my students.
So where does this leave us classroom teachers now? A bit rudderless, I’d say.
When it comes to education in Oklahoma, as much as the methods may change, one fact remains: We are a state that is troubled by our schools. Are we, as educators, going to do what is best for our students and step forward, or will we succumb to the political rants of our legislators and allow them to decide what we teach in the classroom? I have high hopes that when our state pens the new standards, assuming that there isn’t a court-mandated return to the common core, they will reflect the real-world experience of preparing students for the rigors of the 21st century, as well as research-based best practice. What more could educators and families wish for their students?
Yes, in the fall, as a curriculum specialist, I will help the teachers in my building negotiate the rough and choppy waters of the return to PASS or whatever standards we will be asked to teach. We will continue to teach them in a rigorous and child-friendly manner, holding tightly to our belief that all children can learn to read, as well as write. The writing instruction and beliefs that we teachers have implemented over the past few years will not simply vanish into the dark night. We will continue to push on in hopes of a brighter day in Oklahoma.
A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as Rudderless in Oklahoma